Since 1962, the Houston Astros played without a designated hitter.
In 2013, that changes.
Major League Baseball owners gather this week to consider a litany of topics including a new collective bargaining agreement but most notably to this Houstonian, divisional realignment.
Commissioner Bud Selig decided that on top of adding another wildcard team, baseball needed 15 franchises in each league.
The six-team National League Central and the four-team American League West represented an easy fix but not an easy sell.
Because the Selig family previously owned the Milwaukee Brewers, the Wisconsin club wasn’t a candidate for the American League. That doesn’t make much sense considering the Brewers were an AL franchise until 1998 but it helps to have an in with the boss.
That meant the owners needed a team to persuade. And what better way to persuade someone than to set pre-conditions on a purchase.
Jim Crane’s approval as the new owner of the Astros required the Commissioner to get comfortable with the Houston businessman’s sketchy employment past slyly convince him that the American League was inevitable.
Not only is Crane buying the team with a bevy of investors but he’s also been referenced with uncomfortable phrases for executives. Phrases like “racial discrimination” and “war profiteering.”
On the heels of the Frank McCourt mess in Los Angeles, Selig understandably took his time deciding whether to recommend Crane to the owners.
Ultimately, Crane’s issues weren’t near as important as the perceived focal point of Selig’s legacy: the playoffs. The Commissioner suffered barbs from traditionalists when he added the wildcard in 1994 but the success of the idea apparently hasn’t satiated Selig’s desire to see more teams competing in October.
With Houston’s transition to the American League West, three divisions of five teams in each league allows for a fifth entrant to the postseason tournament. Owners have yet to agree on the format but it seems likely that the two wildcard finishers will play a one-game playoff.
And the simplest way to create this new baseball realignment was to force Crane’s hand. Buy the Astros and accept a move to the American League or pass on owning a Major League baseball franchise.
Twice before, Crane had been close. He backed out of a sale of Houston in 2008 for reasons still not public. Then, he teamed with Mark Cuban in 2010 to nearly steal the Texas Rangers from Chuck Greenberg and Nolan Ryan in bankruptcy court.
Aside from a preference for National League baseball, the shift really doesn’t hinder the franchise at all.
Houston is years away from contending, evidenced by a 56-106 record in 2011. The farm system still needs massive retooling and recent draft picks, slowly beginning to reach Minute Maid Park, must contribute.
It’s a blank slate for Crane and his eventual general manager hire. Ed Wade won’t last more than a few days once Drayton McLane exits and it’s up to the new owner and former Houston Rockets executive George Postolos to find a replacement.
Because of the American League move, Major League Baseball discounted the purchase price from $680 million to $615 million. $35 million of the difference is being put up by outgoing owner Drayton McLane while the rest is covered by the other 29 owners.
That discount shouldn’t go toward making it rain, instead Crane needs to seriously woo would-be hometown hero and Tampa Bay General Manager Andrew Friedman.
If the on-field product won’t attract interest in 2012, at least the hope of finding a different trade partner than the Philadelphia Phillies inspires.
Nolan Ryan mentioned that he’s excited for an intra-state rivalry and fewer trips to the west coast. That’s easily said by the CEO of the two-time American League champions.
But in reality, the Astros and the American League are destined for each other. Where else could Brett Wallace suit up besides DH?